AAs normal life in Ireland slowly returns after 18 months of forced lockdown, one of the most heartfelt greetings will undoubtedly be extended until the live theater reappears.
Philadelphia, here I am!, the modern classic by playwright Brian Friel, is the first major dramatic presentation for a live audience in Cork since the restrictions were relaxed, and will take place at the Opera House from October 5-16.
Created in 1964, it remains one of the playwright’s masterpieces, followed by Translations, Dancing at Lughnasa and The healer of faith. Set on the last day of Gar O’Donnell’s life in his hometown of Ballybeg, it examines themes of escape and emigration as he prepares for a new life in America.
For the director Geoff Gould, taking the reins of this classic is like a premonitory interview in a newspaper he remembered 30 years ago.
“It was in 1991 and I remember a journalist asking me one last question: ‘What would be the piece of your dreams to realize?’ I answered, without hesitation, Philadelphia Here I Come by Brian Friel!
“Strangely enough, the reason I answered the question so easily and quickly was that I had been to see a superb production of the play at the Cork Opera in the same year,” says Geoff.
Three decades later, the prospect of directing this dream piece became a belated reality when producer Pat Talbot called in to offer him this 2021 production at the Cork Opera House.
“I honestly thought he might have stumbled upon an old copy of the 1991 interview and was laughing the hard way. In the years that followed, the chances of running a production of this size, with a cast of 14, were and are considered unsustainable. I couldn’t believe him when he said he wasn’t kidding.
Thanks to the government’s live performance support program, the production marks another milestone in Geoff’s career:
It will be a joy to conduct the wonderful, iconic play of Friel and my all-time favorite, in my hometown.
Acknowledging that while the Covid restrictions have been tough on many sectors of the business community, Geoff points out how theatrical capacity restrictions have particularly affected the theater community in general.
“Those of us who work in the theater feel particularly aggrieved by the restrictions. Having “permission” to resume our theatrical work after 18 months of inactivity is a welcome relief.
“I have no illusions that there are people who have had a much more stressful and difficult journey through the pandemic than those of us who work in the theater.”
He points to doctors, nurses and the many people in the retail industry “who have had no choice but to work in the community throughout the pandemic, many putting their own health at risk. , they have won our gratitude and respect ”.
Originally from North Cork, Geoff left school in 1981, just as Ireland was beginning to face a protracted economic downturn. After opting for a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Limerick, followed by a European studies degree at UCC, his career path followed an uncertain trajectory until finally taking a position at the Cork Savings Bank.
Over 15 years in charge of mortgages and farm loans, he eventually became deputy director of loans – until the auspicious day he stumbled upon the theater.
“One day I was at the butcher next to the bank and this lady from Mallow, who had heard me sing at the rugby club the previous Saturday night, asked me to play the lead role in a comedy. musical. I said no, absolutely no way.
“That afternoon she handed me a script and a tape and said, ‘Get up to rehearsals tonight at eight o’clock. “I knew I wasn’t good on stage but I really enjoyed the process and it was like a whole new family. It was really like coming home.”
Following his instinct for a new career challenge, he eventually worked to become artistic director of the Everyman Theater in Cork from 1996 to 2001.
“My accounting degree was very helpful in helping the business stay on the safe side of bankruptcy,” he recalls. Attracted by directing, Geoff eventually secured a coveted place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
There is a feeling for many of us in the theater industry – actors, writers, directors and designers – that the pandemic has taught us to never take our jobs for granted.
“The joy of writing and developing a new screenplay or production in a room full of creative minds, and then being able to present that work to an audience will never be underestimated again.”
The joy of presenting Friel’s masterpiece to a new generation, in tandem with the opportunity to practice his craft again, is what makes coming back to the rehearsal room so exciting. Contrary to public opinion, Irish theater has never been in a better location, he says.
“Theater critics and commentators, mostly city-based to be fair, constantly lament the lack of ‘big political plays’ suited to The Abbey and the dearth of emerging playwrights. There is no doubt that the heyday of the late 1990s, which produced powerful and important works by Enda Walsh, Marina Carr, Conor MacPherson, Martin McDonagh and Mark O’Rowe, may never be repeated. , but it is possible that the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium heralded a different structure for Irish theater.
It highlights actors / writers who write and perform their own work emerging at the turn of the millennium in response to the lack of work available for actors.
“We can thank the gods for the lack of work, otherwise we would never have the extraordinary production presented by people like Pat Kinevane, Mikel Murfi, Sonya Kelly, Noni Stapleton, Margaret McAuliffe, Seamus O’Rourke and Peter Gowen.
These actors represent only a tiny percentage of the 700 new single actor plays presented since the turn of the new century.
In recent years, the Arts Council seems to have once again highlighted the unfair funding that playwrights have been subjected to over the previous two decades, he believes.
“A quick glance at the funding for the project will confirm the small number of writers who received funding during this period compared to the myriad of funding provided for the creator-theater projects. “
Geoff believes it will take another decade to return to the level of the late 1990s when a new generation of playwrights will emerge.
“Michael West, Carmel Winters, Philip MacMahon, Aílís Ní Riain, Micheál Lovett, Katie Holly and Shane Mac An Bhaird, not to mention a host of other playwrights, are still writing great productions for the stage.” , he said.
“But the difficulty is in getting the funding or one of the established theater companies to produce their work, and that won’t change in the short term.”